I always thought that joyriding meant nicking cars and taking them for a spin, often when drunk. It was what some of the wayward lads did on the Chingford Hall council estate where I grew up. So, I was surprised when the Waltham Forest newsletter reported a different kind of joyriding: a cycling group that is free, for women, and that loans bikes to the members who need them. It has grown since its inception, but JoyRiders started right here in my borough where we have an infrastructure of 27km of cycle paths, known as Mini Holland.
London was edging out of the last lockdown and one of the most isolating years we have ever experienced when I discovered the group. I had returned to my roots after living in California in the hope that this country might be kinder to my youngest son. He had bounced around in the mental health system in the USA for almost a decade, where the “cure” had been worse than the diagnosis. But the pandemic hampered my plan. When my son was admitted to a psychiatric hospital yet again, only here instead of in America, I knew I needed a better road map to find my way through the pain.
I hadn’t cycled in ages, but I had loved it ever since first learning to pedal around the podium, a large concrete pad that encircled our estate. I felt safe with the two small additional wheels that Mum had mounted somewhat unevenly on my bike, despite them making me lean to one side, more like a Hells Angel passenger on a Harley than a five-year-old girl on a Raleigh Chipper.
When it was time to ride without the stabilisers, Mum ran behind me shouting, “Pedal, pedal!” and then she gave me one almighty push into a world where it was just me and my bike. It was the way she did most things, confident that I would find my way.
Mum has long gone from this earth. I am the elder now. I feel it in my joints, see it in my face in the car mirror as I drive to Jubilee Park in Leyton for my first excursion with the JoyRiders. I hope I can keep up. I hope it doesn’t hurt my back. I have already messaged Mariam, the co-director of the group, to say I am 5ft 6in tall and that I am heavy. She is leading the morning ride today and I want to make sure the bike I borrow will bear my weight. In retrospect my note is redundant. It is a sturdy hybrid Raleigh that I will be using, not a miniature pony.
Jubilee Park is waking to runners and dog walkers, and it smells of freshly cut grass. I make my way to the container where the stockpile of council-owned cycles is kept. Mariam has a softly spoken accent – a mix of her Dutch and German heritage – and a no-nonsense sense of leadership. She reassures me that my body will remember what to do. “Muscle memory,” she insists. I know that there are other things that my body keeps score of. The trauma of witnessing my son struggle over the years. I don’t say anything about this, though, nor do I say that I am gay and Jewish. It doesn’t seem relevant until the other women start arriving, many of them in traditional Islamic dress. Will it matter to them, I wonder? Is this the right group for me? Will I fit in?
Mariam welcomes everyone and works industriously to adjust my saddle so I can touch the ground with my tiptoes. She takes us through an ABCD checklist for our bikes: Air; Brakes; Chain; Direction. It is Soraya who speaks first, introducing herself and reminding me how the gears work. She is also borrowing a bike. I watch as she hitches up her jilbab over a wide belt and places two cycle clips around her trousers. Her hijab is tucked neatly under her bike helmet. Some of the other women wear jilbabs and hijabs, too. There are no padded bike shorts here. No titanium road bikes, either. As the women chat and fish in their rucksacks for their phones, their purses, their water bottles, I get the sense that this group is about community not competition, about pleasure not pace, but I am still not sure if it is for me.
We set off eventually with Mariam at the front and a volunteer in a hi-vis vest who takes up the rear. They have the route all mapped out on their phones, which are mounted on their handlebars. Where the streets are wide and quiet, we are asked to double up, to take a primary position, riding close to the centre of the road, where we can be seen more easily. Shazia is my partner. She tells me how she hasn’t been riding that long, but that once her baby was old enough to be left with her mother-in-law, she did the cycle training course for beginners and then progressed to these intermediate rides. Her smile is contagious and I feel smug that we manage to stay aligned without crashing into each other.
There are 10 of us on this ride and as we pedal through the entrance to the Olympic Park, an area that I have never seen before even though it is on my doorstep, a child points to us and says, “Look Mum, so many.” I bravely take one hand off the handlebars to wave at him, feeling a slight wobble to my frame.
Inside the park we inadvertently spread into a V-shape. Like a flock of birds, we swarm over the wide bridge. A pedestrian sees how much fun we are having. “Who are you? Can I join?” she shouts at our backs.
“JoyRiders. You can find us online,” the volunteer replies.
Something about our chatter and laughter, the billowing of our clothes in the breeze reminds me of The Sound of Music and the von Trapp family cycling scene. It makes me think of my favourite things: family, my sons, the youngest one who I wish could experience this kind of freedom.
Even though there is still a knot of sadness in my chest, I feel it start to loosen. After fighting for support and services for so long, it is important to have a chance to just sit on the saddle and be led, to be told when to turn left or right, to not have to be so hypervigilant.
We pass the London Aquatics Centre, an impressive site designed by Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, then we stop at a café for coffee. One of the women in the group is doing a PhD about female cyclists, how we are still outnumbered by men, and the reasons why. She asks us questions as we sip at our drinks.
On the way back I speak to Shabnam, a family practice doctor. She tells me how hard it has been for her during the pandemic and it strikes me how little we know about each other, how many assumptions we make, and the danger of stereotypes. As if this isn’t enough food for thought, as we are pedalling through the greenway, it is not a rider’s long jilbab that gets caught in the chain of her bicycle and brings us all to a halt, but rather it is me. My jacket, which I had tied – somewhat haphazardly – around my waist, gets sucked into the spokes of my back wheel. All the women wait until I am disentangled. No JoyRider left behind.
When I get home, I am fatigued in a good way, a way that will help me sleep. I know that Tuesday mornings will be mine now. Weekends, too, on occasion. I invite my friend of more than three decades to join the group. During every ride we stop and pose for a group photograph with our bikes. I receive the pictures on our WhatsApp group, and the messages say things like, “Hey sisters, well done, great ride today.”
My favourite ride with the group is to Brick Lane. Amid the colourful graffiti, the women show me where to buy the best samosas. I point out where my grandmother used to come to get pickled herrings, then we talk about me getting my very own bike. Mariam and some of the sisters weigh in with advice. I want a hybrid. Gears are important, and a comfortable saddle. I tell the sisters how happy I am to be rediscovering my neighbourhood. What I know as being most important, though, is the change in my internal landscape, the opportunity to put on my brakes, lean into the community, and ride towards joy.
Tanya Frank writes on the intersection of motherhood and mental health. Her debut memoir Zig Zag Boy: Motherhood, Madness and Letting Go will be published by HarperCollins in February 2023